"Palestine, Iraq, and American Strategy" attacked the school of analysis that identifies the Palestine question as the fulcrum of Middle East politics. Washington's pro-Israel bias, this school argues, alienates Arabs and feeds support for radicals such as Osama bin Laden. The school's adherents were so myopically focused on Israel as the "root cause" of the region's problems, I claimed, that they failed to appreciate the diversity and significance of various inter-Arab conflicts. Events over the past two years have largely borne out my thesis.

Many commentators warned, for example, that there would be dire consequences if the Bush administration set out to topple Saddam Hussein without also pressuring the Israeli government to do more for the Palestinians. The administration chose to ignore this advice, and -- thanks partly to the passing of Yasir Arafat -- Israeli-Palestinian relations are now the warmest they have been in years.

Similarly, many commentators warned that the invasion of Iraq would produce a powerful nationalist backlash in that country. They were taken by surprise, accordingly, when millions of Iraqis turned out to vote in the recent elections, putting the lie to the notion that the insurgency represents anything like the will of the people.

And they have been shocked by the recent developments in Lebanon, because the spectacle of teeming Lebanese crowds protesting Syria's occupation -- rather than Israel's -- was beyond their imaginations.

What all these "surprises" have in common is that they can be traced to local issues. They came as a shock because they put paid to the concept at the heart of the "root cause" school's thinking: a monolithic pan-Arab public opinion driven by an obsessive concern with the Palestinians and their supposed Israeli and American oppressors.

Recent events should make it clear to all that it is extremely difficult to know what people are really thinking on the ground in Arab countries. And it should also be clear that Arab dictators do not want us to know. Here the Saudi case is instructive.

When Crown Prince Abdullah visited Crawford, Texas on April 25, 2002, he warned President George W. Bush that the Saudi-U.S. relationship would be threatened if Washington failed to restrain the Israelis. He drove home the seriousness of the issue by drawing the U.S. president's attention to demonstrations that had erupted in Saudi Arabia just three weeks earlier, when the Israeli army moved to reoccupy the West Bank. One of the largest demonstrations took place in the town of Safwa, located in the country's Eastern Province. Breaking the law against public demonstrations, young people burst out into the streets chanting "Death to Israel," "Palestine is Arab," "Down with Zionism," and "Death to America."

The root-causes school argued that Washington's Zionism had left the Saudi leadership twisting in the wind: thanks to the overweening power of the Israel lobby, the United States' staunchest Arab allies had become targets of the volatile Arab masses whose hearts beat to the rhythm of the Palestine drum.

In fact, however, Abdullah was using the Palestine card to place Bush on the defensive and deflect his attention from the real issue -- popular support for al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia -- on which his regime felt acutely vulnerable. The country had become an economic and ideological pillar of bin Laden's movement, but at that point Riyadh was in no mood to admit such a fact, much less do anything about it. In this context, the eruption of towns such as Safwa in anger over Palestine was a godsend for Abdullah because it allowed him to prove that U.S. support for Israel was the reason for popular Saudi discontent.

Or was it? The idea that the protest in Safwa was fundamentally about U.S. policies is itself misleading. When the root-causes experts interpreted the meaning of the Crawford summit, they failed to mention two important facts: that Safwa is a Shiite town; and that Wahhabism, the official ideology of the Saudi state, preaches a murderous hatred of Shiism. If young Saudi Shiites take to the streets in protest, the slogans that they chant are beside the point. The medium itself is the message -- the Shiites are angry -- and not one that a Saudi ruler wants to hear.

When the statue of Saddam was pulled from its pedestal in Firdos Square a year later, the streets of Safwa remained quiet. Watching in rapt attention as the United States unshackled their brethren in Iraq, the Shiites of Saudi Arabia asked a question that has now become familiar in the region: "Why not here?" Soon Abdullah received a delegation of Shiite notables who presented him with a petition entitled "Partners in the Homeland." Since among the Shiite petition's demands was the right of religious freedom, if enacted it would alter the fundamental relationship between state and society. It has the potential to be as important for Saudi Arabia as Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech was for the United States. And yet it was hardly covered in the U.S. media, probably because it did not easily fit the framework that understands Middle East developments by focusing on Israel and Palestine.

So far the "lawless unilateralism" of the Bush administration, along with its failure to "deliver" Israeli concessions, has generated not the Arab nationalist backlash that the root-causes school predicted, but the end of the Libyan nuclear program, elections in Palestine and Iraq, a move toward elections in Egypt, and a nationalist uprising against Syrian occupation in Lebanon. These events would seem rather good evidence for the proposition that the Palestinian issue is only one of several important concerns in Middle East politics, not the pivot on which all regional events turn.

The Arab world is in the throes of a prolonged historical crisis, as its societies, economies, and polities struggle to overcome their various internal problems and make a successful transition to modernity. The Palestine-is-central dogma offers little insight into that crisis. Recognizing this, the Bush administration has wisely decoupled the Palestine question from the other major issues that bedevil Arab-American relations. So far this strategy has worked well, bringing benefits to both the United States and many Arabs. By putting the Palestinian issue in its proper perspective, it could even end up helping Palestinians and Israelis as well.

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  • Michael Scott Doran is Assistant Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University and Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of "Pan-Arabism Before Nasser: Egyptian Power Politics and the Palestine Question".
  • More By Michael Scott Doran